Citizens play a vital role in spotted lanternfly management efforts

Spotted lanternfly has a preference for Ailanthus altissima, commonly known as tree of heaven, a rapidly growing deciduous tree that is abundant in the Northeast. Credit: Emelie Swackhamer / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- "The only good lanternfly is a dead lanternfly."

That's JoAnn DeCesar's mantra as she routinely patrols her property in Berks County, looking for the spotted lanternfly, an invasive insect that is causing hardships for people in southeastern Pennsylvania by feasting on plants, excreting sticky "honeydew" and swarming public areas.

In between checking for casualties on trees bands, she looks around for ones that got away, "smooshing" as many as she can with whatever implement is handy -- fly swatter, flip-flop and even her hand. Egg masses are another target.

She estimates that these tactics, along with using a systemic insecticide on tree of heaven, have resulted in the demise of thousands upon thousands of spotted lanternflies. And yet there are more -- many more.

"It's frustrating, but you can't give in or give up," said DeCesar. "Each spotted lanternfly we get rid of is one that won't reproduce. The more people who help, the better chance we have of gaining the upper hand."

DeCesar is spot-on in her assessment, according to Dana Rhodes, plant inspection program manager with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, who said citizens are important allies in the fight against the spotted lanternfly, a war that is being waged in 13 counties -- Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia and Schuylkill.

"This is one of those times when we can't do it alone," Rhodes said. "It's going to take a village, and then some, to fight the spotted lanternfly. Every citizen, business owner and vehicle operator can help by learning about the spotted lanternfly and the steps to stop it."

Since it is new to the United States, little is known about its behavior and biology, but researchers in the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences and U.S. Department of Agriculture are working tirelessly to gather scientific data on how to contain and manage this pest. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and USDA are leading the strategy and implementation of containment, management and control efforts, while the college -- including Penn State Extension -- focuses on research, education and outreach.

"To control it effectively, we first have to understand it, inside and out," said Julie Urban, senior research associate in Penn State's Department of Entomology. "This is a new insect to the United States, and there is a lot we don't know, but we are learning more each day."

Insects find one plant 'heavenly'

What researchers do know is that the pest really likes Ailanthus altissima, commonly known as tree of heaven, a rapidly growing deciduous tree that is abundant in the Northeast. For this reason, the state has devoted significant resources to remove tree of heaven, specifically the "female" of the species, to prevent regrowth.

The "male" plants left behind are being treated with a systemic insecticide and used as traps. When spotted lanternflies feed on these plants, they ingest the insecticide and die quickly.

Homeowners also should remove tree of heaven from their properties, and experts said the best way to do this is to apply an herbicide to the tree using the hack-and-squirt method -- a critical step to prevent regrowth. Even when treated, multiple applications may be necessary over time to kill the tree.

To spray, or not to spray, that is the question

Rhodes said citizens frequently ask why the state doesn't conduct aerial spraying of insecticides to kill infestations as it does for gypsy moth. The short answer is that a large-scale spray of this type could kill native species and cause harm to the environment.

Not just that, but the gypsy moth and spotted lanternfly are different in biology, and the spray that was effective in targeting the gypsy moth, which was vetted to ensure it didn't harm the environment, doesn't have the same effect on the spotted lanternfly, Rhodes said.

Finding a long-term biological solution -- a natural enemy -- that will target the spotted lanternfly but won't hurt other species is the goal, according to Urban. In the meantime, early results of Penn State research suggest that many insecticides, including those with the active ingredients of dinotefuran, imidacloprid, carbaryl and bifenthrin, are effective.

However, there are safety, environmental and sometimes regulatory concerns associated with the use of insecticides, so Urban advises homeowners to do research, weigh the pros and cons, follow the directions on the pesticide label, and seek professional advice if needed. She warned against the use of home remedies such as cleaning and household supplies because they can be unsafe for humans, pets, wildlife and the plants.

Seek and destroy

For those who question how killing one insect or removing an egg mass will make a difference, Rhodes offers this response: "One female spotted lanternfly can lay a couple hundred eggs, so destroying one bug or one egg mass will prevent hundreds in the future. And that will make a difference."

Homeowners are encouraged to look for spotted lanternfly egg masses over the next several months, scraping them off using a plastic card or putty knife, and placing them in a container filled with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer.  Credit: Greg HooverAll Rights Reserved.

And there is no better time than now as it's egg-laying season, according to Heather Leach, Penn State spotted lanternfly extension associate. She advises homeowners to look for egg masses over the next several months, scraping them off using a plastic card or putty knife, and placing them in a container filled with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer. This is the most effective way to kill the eggs, but they also can be smashed or burned.

Tree banding also is an effective tool for capturing nymphs in the spring. Bands can be purchased from hardware or greenhouse stores and often are sold as flypaper. Leach recommends checking the traps on a regular basis because, while rare, birds and small mammals can become stuck to the tape.

Stop the spread

An important part of the effort is making sure the insect doesn't spread, and public awareness campaigns and treatment efforts by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture are focused on "high-traffic" places, such as shopping malls, stadiums, railways, highways, trucking depots and rest stops.

In addition, a state quarantine order requires that citizens and municipal authorities follow guidelines to prevent the movement of spotted lanternflies by inspecting wood and vegetation that might leave a quarantined municipality, and by checking vehicle undercarriages, windshield wipers, wheel wells, luggage racks and such for spotted lanternflies and egg masses before traveling in and out of the quarantine zone.

Businesses operating in the quarantine zone also must have permits to move equipment and goods within and out of the zone. Penn State Extension and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture have developed a free online course to train designated employees on how to comply with this requirement.

"Spotted lanternflies are crafty hitchhikers," said Leach. "Keeping them from infiltrating other parts of the state and beyond is imperative while we work toward developing long-term management solutions."

See it, report it

Monitoring the insect's whereabouts is crucial, too, noted Amy Higley, plant industry inspection technician with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. She asks people to report sightings of the insect, particularly outside of the core infestation area, by visiting the Penn State Extension website at

Information is entered into a database, which is used by the state's entomologists to investigate sightings. The information also is shared with personnel from USDA who are responsible for investigating and removing spotted lanternfly clusters on the outer edge of the quarantine zone.

"We understand the frustration felt by people living with this pest, and how many of their happy, summertime memories have been stolen," Rhodes said. "It will take time, but if we all work together, we will see progress."

Tree banding is one of the methods JoAnn DeCesar uses to control spotted lanternflies on her property in Berks County. Credit: JoAnn DeCesarAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated October 31, 2018